This Is How Earth Would Look to Alien Astronomers


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It has been less than 30 years since the discovery of the first exoplanets, and we’re still in the dark when it comes to the possibility of life on any of them. Our techniques for finding other planets isn’t particularly sensitive, and we’re not even certain what signals we need to prioritize. A new study could shed light on that question by using the only habitable planet known to exist: Earth. 

The study comes from the California Institute of Technology’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, led by graduate student Siteng Fan. The goal was to start with a planet we know supports life (Earth), and work backward to extrapolate what an alien looking in our direction might see. In that way, Fan and the team hope to nail down the “look” of a life-supporting exoplanet. To do that, they used 9,740 images of Earth taken by NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory. They include data on light reflected from Earth in multiple wavelengths. 

At our current level of technology, we can’t directly observe exoplanets. They’re too small and dim compared with stars, but we can infer their presence via gravity or the way they obscure light from their parent stars. Often, the most we can say about an exoplanet’s habitability is whether it has a chance of harboring liquid water based on proximity to the star. 

The team discovered that the second principal component of Earth’s reflected light curve correlates to the fraction of land in the illuminated hemisphere. Using the original images, they were able to pick out the values matching land and cloud cover and applied them to a contour map (see top). The green highlighted areas are landmasses, and the blue is water — Africa is in the center, and Asia is to the right. North America is peeking in at the left edge. 

If we apply these same light curve values to a distant exoplanet, it could help us determine if there’s cloud cover and liquid water on the surface. Confirming that a planet has a water cycle could be a big step toward proving habitability. Will we actually be able to gather such data? It’s possible! Upcoming instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope and Thirty Meter Telescope could have enough resolution to pick up some reflected light from small, rocky exoplanets. We could be on the verge of finding more Earth-like worlds.

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Our Galaxy Might Be Home to 10 Billion Earth-Like Planets


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The Milky Way galaxy is enormous, and we’ve scanned only the tiniest fraction of it in search of planets. We’ve spotted a few thousand of them orbiting distant stars, and now a team of researchers from Penn State University has used that data to estimate the number of Earth-like exoplanets in the entire galaxy — they peg that number between 5 and 10 billion. That’s a lot of places to look for alien life. 

Of course, we can’t know for certain how many Earth-like exoplanets exist, nor can we even say for certain what “Earth-like” means in other solar systems. For the purposes of this study, the team took Earth-like to mean a planet between three-quarters and 1.5 times the size of Earth with an orbital period between 237 and 500 days. 

The researchers started their calculations with data from the Kepler Space Telescope. During its nine-year mission, Kepler identified more than 2,600 exoplanets using the transit method. It watched groups of stars for small dips in light that suggest planets passing in front of them. Kepler demonstrated that many solar systems are similar to our own, but the detection methods favored larger planets orbiting close to a star because they produce more discernible drops in light. To fill in the gaps, the team used data from the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft. 

Kepler spotted thousands of exoplanets during its mission.

Gaia launched in 2013 to create the most accurate 3D map of the galaxy possible. The goal of the project is to determine the locations of more than 1 billion celestial objects. To estimate the number of Earth-like planets, the team used Kepler and Gaia data to create simulated universes and then “observed” those simulated stars like Kepler would have. Since they knew the true number of planets in the simulation, that gave the researchers a sense of how many exoplanets Kepler would have missed in the real world. 

Naturally, there’s a great deal of uncertainty in this estimation, which is why the range is so huge. The best case is 10 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, but that doesn’t mean all of them have life or even a habitable environment — they could have corrosive clouds and crushing atmospheric pressure like Venus and still count as “Earth-like” by the metrics used in the study. The team, therefore, recommends that future missions aiming to find Earth-like planets should plan on seeing them orbiting one in every 33 sun-like stars at minimum. However, it’s possible about half of those stars have at least one Earth-like planet. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope might be able to find exoplanets that back up this claim when it launches (we hope) in 2021.

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New Analysis of Kepler Data Finds Hundreds of New Exoplanets


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The Kepler Space Telescope ended its wildly successful planet-hunting mission last year, but it’s still making discoveries from the grave. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has since taken up the planet-hunter banner, but it’s got a long way to go before it’s on the same level as Kepler. The gap between the probes just got wider, too. A new analysis of data from Kepler has revealed hundreds of potential new exoplanets. 

Kepler launched in 2009 on a three and a half year mission to find distant worlds. NASA is used to missions operating long past their expected lifespan, but Kepler started experiencing issues in 2012. The spacecraft used the transit method of detecting exoplanets — it watched stars for telltale dips in brightness as planets passed in front of them. That meant Kepler had to remain pointed at the same region for long periods of time, but two of its four reaction wheels failed by mid-2013. 

NASA was able to restore Kepler to partial functionality in 2014 by stabilizing it with photons reflecting off its solar panels. This “K2” mission yielded more data and exoplanets, but much of that data is “messy” and hard to interpret. Enter, Ethan Kruse of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Kruse and his team devised a new method of processing the K2 data using Quasiperiodic Automated Transit Search (QATS) and EPIC Variability Extraction and Removal for Exoplanet Science Targets (EVEREST). The processing helps reduce the noisy arcs and curves in the K2 data. The result is many, many new exoplanet signals. 

NASA's K2 balancing act

NASA’s K2 balancing act gave the spacecraft a new lease on life after two unexpected reaction wheel failures.

This is not the first analysis of K2 data, so not all of the 818 planets detected in the study are new. However, an impressive 374 of the signals have not been detected previously. Of those, 154 are what’s known as reciprocally transiting planets. That means they transit their stars from our perspective on Earth, and Earth does the same from those planets. So, there could be alien astronomers running a similar experiment wondering if Earth supports life. The data points to worlds of various sizes from super-Earths to gas giants, and there are 87 multi-planet systems. 

Currently, all the objects listed in the new analysis are mere “candidate” exoplanets. Another team will have to go and check each signal to confirm. In the future, astronomers may be able to use the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope to take a closer look at some of these planetary systems. For now, most of the verification will take place at large ground-based observatories.

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This Alien Planet Is So Hot It Bleeds Metal


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There are thousands of confirmed exoplanets in the cosmos, and many of them are members of solar systems very different than our own. As missions like Kepler and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have highlighted more distant worlds, astronomers have been surprised how many of them have so-called “hot Jupiters.” WASP-121b is the hottest of these close-orbiting gas giants. How hot is it? It’s so hot that heavy metals leak out as it rockets around the star. 

WASP-121b made headlines in 2017 when scientists used Hubble to characterize its stratosphere. That was a first for any exoplanet, and it showed that the planet’s temperature increases along with the altitude, just like planets in our solar system. This is a hot Jupiter with 1.2 times the mass of Jupiter itself. It orbits a star about 900 light-years away that’s slightly larger and warmer than the sun, but it’s so close that its year is only 30 Earth days long. 

Even by the standards of a hot Jupiter, WASP-121b is absolutely scorching. At 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,500 Celsius), it’s 10 times hotter than any other exoplanet yet discovered. While it’s only a little more massive than Jupiter, it’s diameter is almost twice as large because the intense heat from WASP-121 has caused it to swell. The new Hubble observations demonstrate what that intense heat means for the planet. 

The fluffed up outer layers of WASP-121b are under less gravity than the inner layers, so they fall away from the planet as it orbits. In most gas giants — even hot Jupiters — that would be largely hydrogen and helium. However, Hubble indicates that WASP-121b is losing heavy metals like magnesium and iron. Astronomers hypothesize the incredible heat is enough to lift heavy metals from the lower layers of the atmosphere upward where they can be lost to space. 

Exoplanet stratosphere

WASP-121b is too far away to image the atmosphere or trailing metallic gas directly, but Hubble can track the planet as it transits in front of its host star. The changes in light allow them to determine what’s happening to the exoplanet’s atmosphere via spectroscopy. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new analysis is what the hellish heat is doing to the planet’s shape. So much of the atmosphere is being pulled away that the planet probably looks a bit like a football. 

Scientists hope to learn more about this extreme planet in the future. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope should be able to characterize its atmosphere even more accurately.

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TESS Finds Potentially Habitable Super-Earth Just 31 Light Years Away


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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has only been scanning the skies for about a year, but it has already identified several new candidate exoplanets. As astronomers were working to confirm one recent sighting, they happened upon something unexpected. That solar system, known as GJ 357, hosts not one but three exoplanets. What’s more, one of those planets is a super-Earth in the habitable region of the star. 

TESS uses the transit method to spot exoplanets with its array of cameras, similar to the dearly departed Kepler satellite. It can scan multiple stars at the same time, watching for the telltale dips in light that indicate an exoplanet has passed in front of its host star. That’s what TESS saw in GJ 357, which is only 31 light-years away. To confirm the existence of the exoplanet dubbed GJ 357 b, astronomers used ground-based telescopes to measure the star’s radial velocity. This alternative method looks for tiny changes in light caused when a star “wobbles” in response to the gravity of orbiting planets. 

The team confirmed GJ 357 b, but they also found two more exoplanets now known as GJ 357 c and GJ 357 d. GJ 357 is a small M-type dwarf star, which is 40 percent cooler than the sun. GJ 357 b orbits the star in just 3.9 days and is 22 percent larger than Earth. The surface equilibrium temperature (a measure of solar radiation only) is 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius), ruling out life as we know it. GJ 357 c is a bit farther out, but still too hot for life. It’s 3.4 times as massive as Earth and orbits ever 9.1 Earth days. The temperature here is 260 degrees F (127 degrees C).

Astronomers are most interested in GJ 357 d, which sits near the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone with a 55.7-day orbit around the star. It’s 6.1 times more massive than Earth, meaning it could be rocky or gaseous. If it’s a rocky planet, it would be about twice as large as Earth. 

According to the team, GJ 357 d has an equilibrium temperature of  -64 degrees F (-53 degrees C). That sounds too low to be even potentially habitable, but this is only a measure of solar radiation. Earth’s equilibrium temperature is -1 degree F (-18 degrees C), but the atmosphere increases the surface temperature. GJ 357 d gets about as much solar radiation as Mars, and a sufficiently dense atmosphere could allow liquid water to flow on its surface. Astronomers around the world plan to take a closer look at this nearby super-Earth over the coming years.

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NASA’s TESS Spots 3 New Exoplanets in Rare Solar System


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The Kepler planet-hunting satellite is long gone, but NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is just getting started. This satellite has spotted a few exoplanets early in its mission, and the most recent batch includes some extremely weird worlds along with yet another super-Earth. The super-Earth is scorching hot, and the others are cooler. However, they’re not ice worlds like Neptune.  

All three planets orbit a star called TOI-270, which sits roughly 73 light-years away. TOI-270 is about 40 percent smaller than the sun and one-third cooler. Still, the smallest of the three planets (TOI 270 b) orbits close enough to the star (every 3.4 Earth days) to be inhospitable to life as we know it. It has an equilibrium surface temperature of 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius). It’s only 25 percent larger than Earth and has 1.9 times the mass, so scientists believe it’s a rocky object. 

The other two planets are chilly, and they don’t appear to have any analogs in our solar system. TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d are 2.4 and 2.1 times larger than Earth, respectively. They most likely have a mass between five and seven times that of Earth. These planets orbit closer to their star than Earth does to the sun — 5.7 days for TOI 270 c and 11.4 days for TOI 270 d. However, the cooler temperature of TOI-270 means they’re much less extreme. 

The TESS spacecraft.

Most of the gas giants we detect in other solar systems are either so-called hot Jupiters or ice giants like Neptune. TOI 270 c and TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d are fascinating because they’re a middle ground between the two. TOI 270 c is toasty, but not as warm as a hot Jupiter at 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius). TOI 270 d is not exactly cozy at 150 degrees Fahrenheit (67 degrees C), but that’s potentially habitable for very robust forms of life. Again, these are equilibrium temperatures, which is based only on the energy it receives from the star. The real temperature could be higher or lower. 

Astronomers consider the TOI-270 system an ideal place to learn more about planetary evolution. We don’t have planets like TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d in our solar system, so they could have much to teach us. Perhaps the most exciting thing about TOI-270 is its location in the sky. It will be in the James Webb Space Telescope’s field of view for over six months when it’s launched. Astronomers will be able to gather a huge amount of data about this distinctive solar system, and that could change the way we understand planetary development.

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